September 29, 2019
Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart. I am so pleased that you have continued on in this with us, believing and proclaiming God’s Message, from the day you heard it right up to the present. There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears. It’s not at all fanciful for me to think this way about you. My prayers and hopes have deep roots in reality. You have, after all, stuck with me all the way from the time I was thrown in jail, put on trial, and came out of it in one piece. All along you have experienced with me the most generous help from God. God knows how much I love and miss you these days. Sometimes I think I feel as strongly about you as Christ does! So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1:3-11 The Message
Last Thursday evening the Fusion Worship Team came to the parsonage for a dinner planning meeting. After dinner I was blessed to hear each person share their experiences, and hopes and dreams and frustrations about Fusion. Fusion is a small gathering, and it concerns me that it hasn’t grown, in part because we’re a culture that equates numbers with success, and in part because I don’t understand why people don’t go to church. I know people who don’t go to church; I know the statistics of people who don’t go to church; I just don’t understand why church isn’t someplace people flock to… unless we’ve been attacked and we feel threatened and vulnerable, like our nation did on 911, when we crowded into pews and cried and held hands and prayed.
But everyday someone feels afraid and vulnerable, and loneliness is a national epidemic, and having a place to belong is a universal longing… and I don’t know why we aren’t seen as the answer to the spiritual and emotional wounds of being human. I wonder why we aren’t we known for our generosity, our compassion, and for the ways we live like lovers of God and each other. Is it because that’s not how we see ourselves? Is it because we too often focus on what we don’t have – numbers and resources – instead of seeing ourselves as a community of lovers at the corner of Randolph and Division, who are practicing giving and receiving love, and who’re helping build the Kingdom of God in the world?
Some of the comments made on Thursday evening at the Fusion planning meeting were, “Fusion is casual; it feels non-judgmental; it challenges my spirituality; it feels safe; it’s a place to participate; I feel closest to God when I participate in worship; it’s okay to be a mess there; and I don’t know why people haven’t found us yet.” I am glad that the Fusion Worship Team sees itself as a community, and that’s one of the things our culture is searching for. A word I like better that community (or fellowship) is koinonia. Koinonia means “intimate spiritual communion and participative sharing in a spiritual community.” Intimate spiritual community and participative sharing… this is what I heard on Thursday evening from the Fusion Worship Team, and I believe it’s something the world is hungry for, and is a cure for the spiritual and emotional wounds of being human.
The Apostle Paul used the word koinonia in his letter to the church at Philippi, that intimate spiritual community. “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all in view of your koinonia (your participation) in the Gospel from the first day until now.” Paul was writing to the church at Philippi but he was writing about us, because we too participate in the gospel, the good news, of God’s Creating, Redeeming, and Sustaining love for all the world. In this time of scarcity (the belief that there’s not enough for everyone; there’s not enough space or resources; kindness and generosity are in short supply) the church is called to live a lover’s life: to practice gratitude for the abundance of God’s gifts, to be mindful of all our blessings, to be generous in sharing all we have, and to identify ourselves as lovers of God, and of all others, and of ourselves… to be a spiritual community who welcomes everyone.
There is a scarcity of people who want to join organizations. We aren’t a culture of joiners anymore…. But the church isn’t an organization… I remembered that on Thursday evening. We’re a spiritual community participating together, practicing our faith together. There’s an abundance of loneliness and fear and vulnerability in our culture… and we could be a place to come to, a place of welcome, a place of hope and joy… a place to recover from the spiritual and emotional wounds of living in Scare City.
In the Celebration of Membership this morning, I asked you to make a commitment to the Wagner family. “I commend the Wagners to your love and care.” I said to all of you. “Do all in your power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.” Paul wrote to the Philippians, “For I am confident of this very thing: that the One who began a good work in you will perfect it until the Day of Christ Jesus. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul.” John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed that perfection was the goal of the Christian life, that when the Holy Spirit lives in us and shapes and molds into the image and Spirit of Christ (Wesley referred to this as sanctifying grace) it would result in being perfected in love. Wesley described being perfected in love as a heart “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor.” Retired United Methodist Bishop William Willimon commented on the theology of Christian perfection, saying, “In the Bible, the word sanctification means to set something apart and make it holy… for special use by God. By ‘perfection,’ Wesley did not mean moral flawlessness or sinlessness. He meant perfection in the sense of maturity. (Paul wrote this about spiritual maturity, “Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush.”) Bishop Willimon wrote, “Wesley didn’t mean we would be free from mistakes, temptation or failure… but growing as a Christian is all about being filled with love, which happens by the grace of God. We may not be there yet; but by God’s grace, as United Methodists say, ‘We’re going on to perfection!’”
Christian perfection can only happen in community, in koinonia, where we practice living a lover’s life… accepting and forgiving our own and each other’s mess. I’ve heard it said at Fusion, “We do awkward really well here,” and it did my heart good to hear someone on Thursday evening say that it’s perfectly acceptable to come to worship as a mess. Our goal is only to be perfect in hearts full of love for God, and others, and ourselves, not to hide the messiness of being human beings.
Last Sunday we finished a sermon series called Scare City, but just because the sermon series has ended doesn’t negate the fact that we live in a time of scarcity. I’m sure you’ve heard that the Trump administration is planning allow the lowest number of immigrants ever, only 18,000, to enter into our country. Scarcity. Sometimes it’s as if there’s a chant thrumming in the air: there isn’t enough, there isn’t enough, there isn’t enough. Scare City. But we believe something different here. We practice gratitude for all we’ve been given. We believe in the abundance of God. We believe that God is working in us and through us to build and reveal God’s Kingdom here in this messy place, this messy world. And because we see the abundant goodness of God our response is not fear or scarcity but gratitude.
Paul began his letter to the Philippians with gratitude. “Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God! Sometimes I think I feel as strongly about you as Christ does!” Philippi was the first church in Europe Paul helped to found, and the beginning of his letter to them is emotional and intimate. It was customary in ancient letters to begin with a short prayer of thanksgiving, but Paul was writing from prison and was still able to write about living a lover’s life, a life of perfect love. Perfect love, to quote John Wesley, is to have a heart “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor.”
Paul’s letter to the Philippians highlights three qualities of living a lover’s live: gratitude, remembering, and koinonia-friendship. Paul wrote this about Koinonia-friendship. “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if His love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care – then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of Himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of Himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what.” Koinonia-friendship transcends politics and economics and self-interest, and sees in the face of the other, the face of Christ. The friendship Paul writes about, “I hold you in my heart” and “I long for all of you” seems deeper and more trusting than many of the superficial relationships we refer to as friendships. Paul prayed for his friends in Philippi and thanked God for them. This is the mark of Christian friendship: that we pray for each other, that we express gratitude to each other and thank God for each other, and that we hold each other in our hearts.
Gratitude is at the thread woven through Paul’s letter, and another quality of living a lover’s life. He began with gratitude for all the ways the church had supported him. Even from prison he wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, and with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Gratitude is the free ticket that allows us to move out of Scare City, and allows us to notice and give thanks for all that God has given us. Gratitude moves us from scarcity to noticing the abundance of blessings given to us. Jesus said this about abundance: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Gratitude and generosity, Jesus says, are intimately linked together. The theme of our upcoming finance campaign is “It’s a Wonder-Full Life” and throughout the month of October we’ll have opportunities to name and give thanks for all that fills us with wonder, and makes our lives full, and we’ll remember how pouring blessings into the lives of others blesses us.
Remembering is the third quality of living a lover’s life in Paul’s letter. Recently a person told me that in the past, when they’d been able to come to worship, it wasn’t because they had faith, but it was because of the faith of others. I told this person that the church takes turns believing for each other. Sometimes we can carry a whole pew on our faith and our enthusiastic singing and our “Amen!” when we are moved and our applause for the Choir. And sometimes when we come to church, we’re a mess. We crawl into worship… perhaps we’ve been dragged by a friend or a spouse… and we hope that we can hold it together for 59 minutes and that we can sneak out during the last hymn so no one will ask how we are. In those times we can believe for each other; we can remember for each other the love and kindness and faithfulness of God. We remember that we are a spiritual community participating together, practicing our faith together. Our collective memory is as old as the beginning of creation, when God formed us from the dust of the earth, and breathed life into us, and made us in the image of God. That’s how far back our spiritual memory goes. The stories in the bible are our stories, and they hold us together as a community. The community of faith, Paul told the Philippians, is a community of remembering. We remember together the stories of our faith. We remember who we are, and Whose we are. And although we sometimes remember and romanticize the past, and the good old days, the memory of Christ and His mission has always pulled the church into the future, not allowing us to stay stuck in the past.
This is Compassion Weekend, and yesterday twenty of us packed over fifty lunches for the South County Shelter. Today during Friendship Time, we’ll have the opportunity to sort toiletries and socks for the hygiene kits, and tonight the youth and families are going to package the kits. This weekend seems like a good time to read Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi and to reflect on how much we’ve been given and how much we have to share. We’ve moved out of Scare City and into a place of gratitude, and remembering, and koinonia. Paul’s tells us, “Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.” When we turn away from Scare City and focus on the kingdom of God… we begin to live a lover’s life… and we will be known as the church at the corner of Randolph and Division that’s closing the gap between heaven and earth. “Build it” said Kevin Costner in the movie Field of Dreams, “And they will come.” Amen.